Rwanda tribunal 'ghosts' acquitted into limbo

18th December 2009, Comments 0 comments

They are known as the "tribunal ghosts". Half of the Rwandans acquitted by the Tanzania-based court trying the 1994 genocide still haunt its corridors in limbo, unwelcome at home or abroad.

Arusha--Of the eight Rwandans acquitted so far by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), four--including a former minister cleared six years ago--have made it no further than the court's corridors.

Two were cleared last month by the court, set up to try the masterminds of the mass killings 15 years ago by Hutu extremists that left an estimated 800,000 people dead, most of them Tutsis.

Although in theory free to leave, the court "ghosts"--all Hutus-- re trapped in the north Tanzanian city of Arusha which hosts the tribunal, unable to return home to Rwanda for fear of reprisals and denied asylum abroad.

"We found solutions for four only, and that wasn't easy. France took in two, Switzerland and Belgium one each, but it took an arduous procedural struggle in Belgium," ICTR spokesman Roland Amoussouga told AFP.

Belgium's highest judicial authority granted asylum in 2007 to Emmanuel Bagambiki, a former official from southwestern Rwanda, a year after turning down a first request from the court.

The four "ghost" acquittees "are still under the care of the tribunal and they haven't found a country willing to welcome them," said Amoussouga.

Nights are spent in a safe house provided by the ICTR in a leafy suburb of Arusha, and most days at the court itself.

They pass the hours leafing through books and documents at the ICTR's library, or sitting in on court proceedings.

Six years after he was cleared, Rwanda's former transport minister Andre Ntagerura is there near every day, in a spotless dark suit and polished shoes.

"For three years, we were actually leading the lives of prisoners. All our time was spent in the safe house. We'd wake up, they'd bring us a meal, then we would just kill time and watch Tanzanian TV," he told AFP.

"Since 2007, we've been allowed to visit the library. I split my days between here and the safe house."

Ntagerura's Canadian lawyer, Philippe Larochelle, has worked tirelessly to find him a home, lobbying the authorities in Canada, where the former minister studied, although so far in vain.

"He spends seven or eight years in preventive custody, he's acquitted but then he spends another five years effectively locked up in a house in Arusha. It just doesn't make sense," the lawyer said.

"The tribunal is not capable of ensuring the implementation of its own acquittal decisions," he charged.

Earlier this month, ICTR president Dennis Byron reiterated a call for foreign states to extend asylum to acquitted defendants.

"It is of fundamental importance and in the interests of fair justice that member states are ready and prepared to accept the relocation of acquitted persons to their territory," he said.

The task of relocating cleared defendants is made harder by weak provisions in the tribunal statutes, which compel signatory states to hunt down suspects but mostly overlook the fate of those acquitted by the court.

"It gets you wondering if some consider this court was created only to sentence. Is it not to bring justice? If it is indeed to bring justice, this includes acquittal," Amoussouga said.

"The fact that some members of the international community are only willing to recognise sentences and not acquittal... undermines the foundations of the international justice system," he added.

In the meantime, Andre Ntagerura bides his time in Arusha, officially a free man but trapped at the scene of his trial, his only valid identification document an access pass to the ICTR.

AFP/ Francois Ausseill

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